News: Fueling the fight: The air bridge in Iraq
Story by Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel
MIDDLE EAST – Aerial refueling gives U.S. aircraft the key advantage of lingering longer in the air as they continue operations over northern Iraq.
For the flight crews of the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron operating KC-135 Stratotankers, the mission isn’t a lot different compared to the years of refueling they have done in Afghanistan. However, the new fight and prospect of helping endangered U.S. and Iraqi citizens bring a different feel to the mission.
“From a personal perspective we have seen a lot of gruesome acts across the news in the past several weeks,” said Air Force Capt. Ryan Christie, a pilot and mission commander with the squadron. “That gives me a little more motivation to get out here and be part of the mission to help these people and turn the tables on what’s going on.”
Air Force 1st Lt. Kaylyn Leibrand, Christie’s co-pilot, agrees.
“It’s important to do what we can to help and protect the citizens who can’t protect themselves and the assets we have in the country,” she said. “We are fueling assets in the air who are able to assist with the situation for Iraqi troops and civilians on the ground.”
Since Aug. 8, U.S. aircraft supported by tanker units like the 340th EARS have conducted more 90 airstrikes across Iraq. The strikes helped to slow the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant’s advance in northern Iraq giving Kurdish and Iraqi security forces time and space to resume offensive operations including the recent re-capture of the Mosul Dam.
In addition, refueled aircraft also played a vital role in operations near Mount Sinjar, Iraq, when thousands of Yazidis were in danger from ISIL. While C-17 and C-130 cargo aircraft dropped more than 114 thousand meals and 35 thousand gallons of fresh drinking water to Iraqi citizens on the mountain, fighters ensured the aircraft and aid recipients were protected from ISIL forces in the area.
Leibrand, whose crew deployed together from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, credits those on the ground who prep and maintain the aircraft for a large part of the unit’s success.
“Those guys work hard through some pretty extreme circumstances,” she said. “They have time to make sure the jet stays in the air, but there are some small things they don’t have time to fix because there is a never-ending line of maintenance for them to attend to. That’s where we come in to play. We adapt and push through to get to the guys who need us.”
Aircraft operations in Iraq would be possible without refueling, but tankers make it possible for those operations to have a larger and more sustained impact.
“It’s like being on the way to the hospital trying to save someone’s life and running low on gas,” said Senior Airman Crystal Cash, a boom operator with the squadron. “If the gas station is closed, you may or may not get there. We are that station ready to pump every last bit of fuel to those who need it. There’s nowhere to pull over up here. Every ounce of fuel is a second more lives can be saved.”